Big gaffes whittle away confidence in U.S. agencies

The failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to warn of the 9/11 attacks, coupled with their faulty assessments about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, has undermined public confidence in their effectiveness. On top of these misgivings, they have now reversed their 2005 estimate that had firmly concluded Iran was engaged in a nuclear weapons program. Can the United States -- despite spending roughly $44 billion a year -- ever really know what is going on in closed societies such as Iraq in 2002 or Iran today, not to mention al-Qaeda terrorist cells hiding out in the Toba Kákar mountains of Pakistan?

The unhappy truth is that America's intelligence agencies, like every other human enterprise, will always have their share of failures. Such is the existential dilemma of trying to forecast events in a vast and uncertain world where adversaries attempt to conceal their capabilities and intentions. Nevertheless, much can be done to lessen the odds of costly errors.

First, as every government study of the 9/11 and Iraqi mistakes has concluded, the United States lacks effective human spy rings around the world. The government continues its exorbitant spending on gold-plated satellites and reconnaissance aircraft with every conceivable high-tech gadget, but with a limited ability to track terrorists or to spot underground nuclear weapons facilities abroad. The United States must pay more attention to the recruitment of foreign agents, notably in the Middle East and South Asia, and must increase incentives for young Americans to develop the language skills and knowledge of other cultures necessary to succeed in these recruitment efforts.

The intelligence services must hire more Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage, individuals who already know the histories, cultural mores and languages of these regions. Further, the United States must enhance its ties to friendly foreign intelligence services that are willing to share information about common adversaries.

Second, U.S. intelligence agencies are behind the learning curve when it comes to information technology. New methods must be developed to rapidly separate out the high percentage of useless "noise" in the information gathered around the world from the thin, but vital, strand of "signals" about impending threats. Leaders also need to establish better computer connections among the intelligence agencies in Washington, and downward to state and local counterterrorism officials, so information about threats can be rapidly shared.

Third, intelligence analysts must make clearer how good their sources are and how confident they feel about their assessments. It is especially important that policymakers understand the reasons for any disagreements among analysts. Intelligence reports should highlight these internal debates more prominently so America's leaders have a full understanding of all the key arguments involved.

With respect to the majority intelligence opinion in 2002 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, the dissenting views of the Energy Department, the State Department and the Air Force were insufficiently emphasized to officials in the Bush administration. Had the dissents been more prominent, the administration may have been less self-assured about Iraqi WMDs and more willing to delay an invasion.

Fourth, analysts and intelligence managers must be trained to resist pressures from policymakers to "cook" or politicize intelligence; and they must be determined to set the record straight for the public if intelligence reports are twisted for political purposes by those in public office. No responsibility is greater for intelligence officers.

On the policy side, the American people must choose leaders who are fact-seekers, open-minded enough to seek out differences of opinion and to weigh the totality of the evidence before taking fateful actions.

These objectives amount to a tall order, but they are necessary if the United States expects to ward off another 9/11 attack -- or worse. The key to success will be effective leadership, especially establishing an office of director of national intelligence who has greater authority backed by a supportive president who cares about strengthening the nation's intelligence capability. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 established a director of national intelligence; unfortunately, however, the law failed to provide the director with budgetary or appointment powers over all 16 agencies. As a result, these agencies remain separate "stovepipes" with competing agendas. A true intelligence community remains a distant goal.

In sum, the United States must establish better spy rings abroad, improve intelligence-sharing at home and abroad, produce more sophisticated analytic reports with dissents clearly stated, and put in place a spy chief with the authority to coordinate all of the nation's secret agencies. Even then mistakes will occur. Nonetheless, the future of America's security rides heavily on achieving genuine intelligence reform, not just the cosmetics of the 2004 law. Few matters should have a higher priority for the next administration.